Jul 30 2012 1:00pm
An excerpt of Gangster Squad, a true crime novel by Paul Lieberman, based on the experiences of eight covert cops waging war on L.A.’s biggest gangsters (available July 31, 2012).
A harrowing, edge-of-your-seat narrative of murder and secrets, revenge and heroism in the City of Angels—the real events behind the blockbuster Warner Brothers film starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone.
Gangster Squad chronicles the true story of the secretive police unit that waged an anything-goes war to drive Mickey Cohen and other hoodlums from Los Angeles after World War II. In 1946, the LAPD launched the Gangster Squad with eight men who met covertly on street corners and slept with Tommy guns under their beds. But for two cops, all that mattered was nailing the strutting gangster Mickey Cohen. Sgt. Jack O’Mara was a square-jawed church usher, Sgt. Jerry Wooters a cynical maverick. About all they had in common was their obsession. So O’Mara set a trap to prove Mickey was a killer. And Wooters formed an alliance with Mickey’s budding rival, Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen. Two cops—two hoodlums. Their fates collided in the closing days of the 1950s, when late one night “The Enforcer” confronted Mickey and his crew. The aftermath would shake both L.A.’s mob and police department, and signal the end of a defining era in the city’s history.
Warner Brothers developed the film Gangster Squad based on the research award-winning journalist Paul Lieberman conducted for this book, which reveals the unbelievable true stories behind the film. He spent more than a decade tracking down and interviewing surviving members of the real police unit as well as families and associates of the mobsters they pursued. Gangster Squad is a tour-de-force narrative reminiscent of L.A. Confidential.
A Violin Case Under the Bed
“Willie Burns called,” Connie O’Mara said when her husband, Jack, came home.
“What did he want?”
“He wants you back at the station.”
It was a cool fall evening in Los Angeles so Sergeant John J. O’Mara retrieved his topcoat from the closet and his snap-brim fedora from the rack by the door of the garden apartment they had been renting since he got back from the war. His revolver still was in his shoulder holster.
Their old Plymouth was parked across from Saint Anselm Catholic Church, whose priest already had roped him in as an usher, ﬁnding the young Irish sergeant ideal for passing the collection basket—Jack O’Mara would give ’em his withering blue-eyed stare and that was it.
Their apartment was only three miles from the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street Station, on the edge of Watts, so the drive didn’t give him much time to ponder why Lieutenant Burns might be calling him in after hours. O’Mara had been getting grief in the department for busting a burglary ring that included the teenage son of a police commander. Some old-timers thought he should have let the case ﬁle disappear. He hadn’t.
When O’Mara reached the station house, eighteen men were gathering in the squad room, many of them enormous, the largest cops he’d ever seen. This wasn’t about any burglary case. Most all wore topcoats and hats just like his. Lieutenant Willie Burns kept his hat pulled down low, over his eyes, like the bad guys.
Burns was waiting at the far end of the squad room. He was a tough little fellow who had been shot early in his police career and had served as a gunnery officer in the Marines. He was standing behind a bench. On it sat a Thompson submachine gun.
“We’ve been asked by the chief to form a special detail,” Burns said as his hands eﬀortlessly took apart the Tommy gun and reassembled the pieces.
That’s all he called it then, the special detail. Burns later told a grand jury, “My primary duties were to keep down these gangster killings and try to keep some of these rough guys under control.” Now he gave these eighteen men the particulars: If they joined him, their targets would be the likes of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the playboy refugee from New York’s Murder, Inc., and Jack Dragna, the Sicilian banana importer who quietly lorded over Los Angeles’ illegal gambling and related rackets. Most of the cops had never heard of Dragna, the man they were told ran the rackets in their city.
Most had at least heard the next name, if only because Mickey Cohen had killed a man the year before, a fat bookie. Mickey was almost a local boy too. Born in Brooklyn, as Meyer Harris Cohen, he had been brought west by his mother as an infant and had grown up in L.A.’s poor Boyle Heights neighborhood. He fought ﬁrst for street corners as a newsboy then moved away to ﬁght for pay, as a flyweight, ﬁve foot ﬁve at most. Mickey was a little man, but one of the breed who learned that a gun could make him bigger. He gravitated from boxing to running dice games and sticking up joints around Cleveland and Chicago until he drew the attention of the old Capone mob, becoming “the Jew kid” to them. They encouraged him to take his moxie back west where he might learn some style from the cashmere-suited Ben Siegel, and perhaps help Bugsy muscle aside L.A.’s second-tier hoods. But Mickey had gained little notice until 1945, when 250-pound Maxie Shaman stormed into his thinly disguised gambling parlor in a Santa Monica Boulevard paint store. Mickey said big Maxie had come at him with a .45, the one found by the body, so he had no choice but to plug the burly bookie with the .38 he kept in his desk.
Since then another bookmaker, Paulie Gibbons, had been shot seven times on a Beverly Hills street. Next to fall, in 1946, were Chicago natives Bennie “The Meatball” Gamson and George Levinson, that dual execution generating the gangsters in gambling war headline that was the last straw for Los Angeles oﬃcials—and the reason Lieutenant Willie Burns assembled eighteen hand-picked candidates for a secretive new squad that October.
“You’ll be working with these,” Burns told them as he hoisted the Tommy gun and slid in its circular 50-round drum.
The deal was: If they joined him, they would continue to be listed on the rosters of their old stations while operating out of two rusted old Fords. They would not make arrests. If someone had to be booked, they’d call in Homicide, Vice, or Robbery. They would also be available for other chores, as Chief C. B. Horrall saw fit. They would have cash at their disposal, a Secret Service Fund to pay informants who might help them gather intelligence on the likes of Bugsy, Dragna, and Mickey Cohen. But they would have no office. They’d meet on street corners, in parking lots, and up in the hills. In effect, they would not exist.
Burns gave the eighteen men a week to ponder his invitation and some advice from an old lieutenant at the 77th who said an assignment like that could get you in good with the chief, or even make you a hero, “Or you could end up down in San Pedro, walking a beat in a fog.” Sergeant Jack O’Mara puffed on his pipe as the old lieutenant cautioned them, “Whatever you do, keep your nose clean.”
After the week to think it over, only seven came back to join Willie Burns, making a Gangster Squad of eight. One was O’Mara, who had to explain to his wife, Connie, what was in the stylish black violin case he began keeping under their bed.
Sergeant Jerry Wooters came on board later. He was not a church usher or a pipe smoker. He went for cigars or cigarettes, which he dangled from the corner of his mouth. Gerard “Jerry” Wooters was lean and angular—he was all about playing the angles. He was the son of an itinerant gold miner who had come to California following its oldest get-rich-quick fantasy, but mostly stayed poor. Jerry tried to avoid the war but couldn’t, then got shot down over the Paciﬁc and was left ﬂoating in a raft. If a Japanese boat found him ﬁrst, he was dead. If an American ship found him, he’d come home with medals. After he came home with his medals, he kept photos of himself with the comely nurses who helped him recover. As a policeman he displayed the same screw-you deﬁance to the crooks and his bosses alike. On his ﬁrst case for the Gangster Squad, he led the investigation that changed the ground rules for policing in California.
Jerry Wooters and Jack O’Mara had nothing in common except for their rank as sergeants, and their shared obsession with Mickey Cohen.
In time, O’Mara set a trap for Mickey, using his own guns, to prove he was a killer.
Wooters forged an alliance with Mickey’s budding rival of the 1950s, Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen, a powerhouse of a man who took pride in never needing a gun—his fists were enough—and had dreams of making it in Hollywood.
Neither cop told the other what he had done.
On the job a decade before J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI acknowledged the existence of the Maﬁa, the Los Angeles Police Gangster Squad took an anything-goes approach to making life hell for Mickey Cohen and his ilk. Squad members faked drive-by shootings to confound their targets and took out-of-town hoods up to Mulholland Drive for chats designed to scare them back home. They posed as termite men and telephone repairmen to plant hidden microphones— to hell with warrants. They bugged TV sets and a mistress’s bed. They neutralized a pesky newspaper columnist and did hush-hush favors for Jack Webb, who gloriﬁed the LAPD with his Dragnet television show. They stole guns and address books from mobsters and left anonymous messages, not loving chocolates, on their pillows.
There were close calls—grand jury investigations, lawsuits, and a skeptical police chief or two—but they endured through the ’50s. That’s when one of their cases reached the State Supreme Court and one of their own, the deﬁant Jerry Wooters, got a bit too reckless, setting the stage for the deadly night in the Valley when a bullet between the eyes signaled that the Gangster Squad’s time was over, and so was a defining era in Los Angeles history.
They operated at a time and place where truth was found not in the sunlight, but in the shadows, and justice found not in marble courthouses, but in the streets. That was their Los Angeles, the sun-washed city of palm trees and self-invention, the city that spent a long century pretending that evil came from afar.
The Dusty Road Con
Fred Whalen learned to scam along the Mississippi, the river that divides America, at pool halls and revivals. He was born in 1898 in Alton, Illinois, just upriver from St. Louis, and by the time he was a teenager he had figured out the traveling evangelists who set up shop in tents, barns, and occasionally, even, in real churches. He saw the people writhing in divine ecstasy out in their congregations and sensed immediately what was up: they were phonies, plants, shills for the preachers. Little Freddie was barely able to see over the pews but he knew they were fakers, those folks writhing in the aisles. So he’d take his coat and cover them up and spoil the show . . . until the preachers began paying him $5 to stay away.
Freddie had another tactic for evangelists who didn’t have Holy Rollers shaking with the spirit. He didn’t need a hymn book—he knew all the words to standards such as “Are You Washed in the Blood?” so he’d rise with the crowd and belt it out, through the closing lines,
Are your garments spotless?
Are they white as Snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
The evangelist then would signal everyone to sit, eager to get down to business, and the ﬂock would do as told, except for Freddie. He’d remain on his feet and start it again, “Are you washed in the blood?” and everyone would rise back up and join him, singing it over, ﬁrst verse to last. Then the preacher would gesture once more for all to be seated, only to have Freddie launch into the refrain once more, “Are you washed in the blood?” His deal with those preachers was the same, five bucks and I go away.
As for pool, he was a true prodigy—there was nothing fake about him being able to beat anyone in Alton by ﬁfth grade. An old shark known as Tennessee Brown saw the Irish kid toying with some pretty fair players for a jar full of pennies and begged Freddie’s parents to let him tutor the boy. Freddie’s father worked as a railroad switchman for the Illinois Terminal but had grown up in Ireland amid the potato famines, and he knew the value of a little extra money. So little Freddie soon was giving trick-shot exhibitions in which he wowed the crowds by hitting balls off the top of Coke bottles. But the real payoff wasn’t in showing off. It was in looking as bad as possible while still beating the other guy, making him believe it was his fault he lost. Freddie dropped out of school to hit the road with his cue and his mentor, who guided him through the pool parlors and dives along the river, perfecting his hustle. Sometimes Tennessee Brown would oﬀer to play people using one pocket, they got the other ﬁve. Once he took their money he would treat himself to a 25-cent cigar and tell the loser, “Bet you can’t even beat that kid.”
Freddie’s childhood officially ended when his railroad worker father got consumption and couldn’t shake the cough. John Whalen took off without his family for that beautiful and distant place called California, having heard of its miracle cures, only to return to Alton four weeks later, homesick and still coughing. Freddie was fourteen when his father passed in 1912.
He moved up to Chicago to put all that he’d learned about human nature to work as a door-to-door salesman. He was slender but close to six feet tall and looked grown-up in a gray suit and vest. He had an oversized smile, a natural salesman’s smile, and if it looked fake to some people, so be it—most liked how he lit up a room. Freddie convinced two rival photo studios in the Windy City to let him represent them. For $1, families got a certiﬁcate they could bring in, good for an 8-by-10-inch formal portrait. He never let either studio know he was selling for the other.
In no time Freddie was peddling a more elaborate product, a check writing machine. People were fearful that someone would alter checks they wrote to raise the amount, so the typewriter-like device punched down and perforated the paper to form the number. It literally cut a check, the origin of that phrase. He found it easy to convince customers they were in great peril if they didn’t have one of his check protectors. Before long, the company that made the machines offered to send him to New York, to sell there. He declined because of a girl.
Whalen family lore offers two accounts of how Freddie met Lillian Wunderlich. One version was pure Americana, sweet, romantic, and innocent. In this telling, his selling took him back down to St. Louis, where he’d stop at a teeming boarding house run by Lillian’s mother. The Wunderlich clan was huge, with sixteen kids, many raised doing chores on a family farm in Paciﬁc, Missouri. Perhaps that’s why the boys were so strong—one, Augustus, “Gus,” could hoist the heaviest wooden chair in the house with one hand. But the eldest girl was why Freddie kept coming back. Born in 1899, the year after him, Lillian was just fourteen when they went out for the ﬁrst time, with several Wunderlichs along to chaperone, eager to keep an eye on the pool-playing salesman with the oversized smile.
But the other account of their meeting suggests that the Wunderlichs understood exactly who they were letting into the family. Young Gus also loved the spectacle of the revivals on the sawdust circuit and attended one in a barn, then dragged two of his sisters back the next night, telling Lillian and Florence, “You gotta see this.” They sat up in the loft, looking down on the preacher imploring the crowd, “I KNOW there’s a sinner out there—a gambling, drinking, womanizing sinner. And if we all bow our heads, he’s gonna come to the lord TONIGHT. Come forward, sinner, COME FORWARD!” With that, a lanky young man, dark-haired and duded up, jumped to his feet. “It’s me!” he shouted while marching up front to be saved, on his knees, in tears. It was Fred Whalen, of course, and after the service Gus guided his sisters to the back of the barn and again said, “Watch this” as Freddie and the preacher shook hands and something green passed from the man of the cloth to the night’s repentant sinner, no longer the enemy of the traveling evangelists.
Lillian Wunderlich was smitten on the spot. She liked to point out that her grandmother had gone to dances with the train-robbing James boys, Frank and Jesse, in the mid-1800s. It was in her blood, an eye for a certain kind of man. She was sixteen when she married Fred. He was seventeen. They honeymooned at the Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton, which touted the therapeutic powers of the waters bubbling up below its basement and sold the stuff by the bottle.
The couple had a daughter ﬁrst, Bobie, then a son, Jack. Decades later, the family insisted that the baby boy was huge, ten pounds out of the womb, or maybe fourteen pounds, or sixteen. Family legends vary that way. But the State of Missouri birth certiﬁcate did not list a weight, reporting only that Jack Fredrick Whalen was born just after midnight on May 11, 1921.
The next year, Fred Whalen led the clan’s migration west, he and his young wife, their two kids and a slew of Wunderlichs. He showed up at their boarding home with $26, his pool cue, his fancy clothes, and two vehicles. “Everybody that wants to go to California, pack your stuff, we’re leaving,” he announced, and a dozen of them stuffed into two cars waiting outside. One was a let’s-hope-it-works black sedan made by the Dorris Motor Car Company of St. Louis (“Built Up to a Standard. Not Down to a Price.”), soon to go defunct. But the other was eye-popping, a Marmon Touring Car made by the Indianapolis company whose yellow one-seat speedster had won the ﬁrst 500-mile race in that city. Now Marmon offered discerning motorists “The Major Car of the Major Class” featuring a large rear seating area set well back from the driver, running boards on each side, the ﬁrst rear-view mirror, and a front grill topped by a silver ornament you might see on the car of a millionaire company president, which is exactly what Fred pretended to be in the small towns en route.
They’d stop at a dusty roadside camp on the outskirts of Anywhere U.S.A., where everyone got out but Fred and his young wife and the iron-muscled Gus. An aunt would take charge of baby Jack, who traveled in a makeshift cradle they suspended on a rope inside one car, hanging down behind the front seat. While other Wunderlichs wandered off to find a nearby farm, searching for a stray chicken to poach, Fred put on his three-piece suit and Lillian her frilliest dress, with a hat to match. Gus got ready in a white shirt and vest . . . and a chauffeur’s cap. Then they rode in toward Main Street in the imposing Marmon, the couple in back, Gus up at the wheel. Fred called him “kid” and “palie,” but Gus was an ideal chauffeur, having driven farm vehicles, and rebuilt their motors, from the day he quit the sixth grade.
In each town, Gus would look for the busiest tavern and stall the Marmon in front of it. By the time he got out and lifted the hood, a crowd would be gathering to gawk at the car that sure wasn’t a Ford and at the regal-looking couple inside, dressed to the nines. Gus would examine the engine and shake his head and ask if anyone knew where he could ﬁnd tools. Then he’d walk back to tell Fred, “Excuse me sir, it’s going to take a while to ﬁx. Why don’t you go inside where it’s cool and have some refreshment?”
Fred would take Lillian’s hand and stride into the tavern and as soon as they disappeared a local would ask, “Who’s that?” Gus-the-chauffeur then would tell of the finance company Fred ran, consolidated or associated something-or-other, and then he’d asked the locals, “Do you have any pool tables in there?”
“Well, my boss fancies himself a pool player. He thinks he can play.”
Gus would glance side to side to make sure his boss was gone then conﬁde that if anyone knew what they were doing, and stayed sober, they could beat him easy. All Gus asked was that they share some of their take with the kindly servant who had tipped them off, slip him a token of appreciation after they took his boss to the cleaners. The news spread quickly that there was a rich, easy mark in town.
That’s how the Whalens and Wunderlichs financed their trek west, with Fred’s winnings from all the suckers in America’s heartland.
The City Where Evil Comes from Without
The fear of invading evildoers had been a refrain in Los Angeles since before the turn of the century. The nation’s burgeoning railroad system did not reach the young city until 1876, when the Southern Paciﬁc linked up to it from the North, and that same year a new position of Chief of Police was established to supervise six officers. By 1891 Los Angeles was a scattered community of 65,000 with a police force of seventy-ﬁve, counting the matron, clerk, bailiff, and secretary. If you discounted the two men who drove the horse-drawn Paddy wagons, Chief John Glass had forty-eight patrolmen to watch over thirty-six square miles and combat the nagging problems of the day. “There are some (too many) poker games kept running in the back of cigar stores and saloons, and they do great damage to the young men of this city and furnish a living for a lot of wretches who are too lazy to work,” Chief Glass told residents in his annual report. “Lottery gambling is not easily eradicated . . . The number of pawnbrokers and other dealers in second-hand goods has increased.” The good news for Los Angeles was that the tally of houses of prostitution had held steady and “war has been made on the pimps,” the chief said. “I believe that there now are less of those vile human beings in this city than in any time in years past.” Other good news was the $1,867.10 in savings achieved by having inmates cook their own food, rather than pay a restaurant to furnish prison meals. But Chief Glass had an ominous warning for the sun-drenched outpost that fancied itself America’s Garden of Eden: “One very serious cause of annoyance and danger to the residents of this city is yearly growing: Each winter brings us an increased number of burglars, safe-blowers and other skilled thieves from the large cities of the East.” While there had been some important arrests of “Eastern crooks,” Glass said it was time to furnish his officers with more than a rosewood club and leather belt and not count on them to buy their own handcuffs and revolvers. The chief called upon the city to provide each officer with all that plus a “police whistle, ﬁre key . . . and a first-class repeating rifle.”
With the onset of the twentieth century, shootouts erupted among L.A.’s immigrant fruit cart vendors—ﬁrst hints that the notorious Black Hand might be in town—and the unwelcomed outsiders were upgraded to “Eastern gangsters.” After George Maisano was shot three times in the back on June 2, 1906, he lived long enough to tell police that the gunman was a fellow immigrant fruit peddler, Joe Ardizzone, the “Iron Man” of the city’s small Italian quarter. But Ardizzone quickly “disappeared in the darkness,” noted one account at the time. “The case is a difficult one, because other Italians in the colony here are doing all they can to aid the criminal in escaping and refuse absolutely to talk about the case, saying they never heard of it.”
A few months later, a man on a bicycle shot Joseph Cuccia, a father of three, as he drove his wagon along North Main Street, his horses then spooking and the cart careening for two blocks. When a witness tried to run after the ﬂeeing cyclist, the man turned with his gun and said, “Let no one try to follow me.” Next to go was a barber, Giovannino Bentivegna, who was shot through the window of his shop. Authorities said a letter found in his pocket was written in Sicilian and had “a crude drawing of a clown and a policeman,” the Black Hand’s warning to a stool pigeon. Those were the sort of incidents that had plagued New York’s Little Italy following the 1890s’ wave of immigration across the Atlantic. But Los Angeles? A new name was suggested for one street in its Italian quarter, “Shotgun Alley.”
In 1913, the LAPD announced that it was hiring twenty-ﬁve new officers to repel what were now described as “Eastern hoodlums,” spurred in part by a jewelry store heist on South Broadway. Unknown parties cut a two-foot hole in the roof, lowered themselves down a rope, avoided several alarms, and made off with a tray containing dozens of diamond rings worth $6,000, the most lucrative criminal haul in the city in a year. The culprits were pros, clearly, but Los Angeles officials were sure it was more, evidence of an influx of Bunco men, porch climbers (“ding-bats”), pickpockets (“dips”) and safe crackers (“pete blowers). “A thousand thieves are headed for Los Angeles,” police told the Los Angeles Times, adding that the grim news had come directly from law enforcement agencies in the know. “The eastern departments recently sent word that nearly every thief caught said he would leave for Los Angeles if released and, further, that every man that was wanted was reported to be in Los Angeles or headed for the city.”
As if to punctuate the warning—and quiet any skeptics—one of the twenty-five rookie police officers hired to repel the invasion almost immediately got into a shootout with two gunmen. Days on the job, Frank “Lefty” James became an overnight hero by taking a slug in his left shoulder while killing one of his assailants and wounding the second, who promptly told officers he had shuffled into town only the day before . . . from Buffalo.
Then two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were caught in a nighttime car chase and shootout on a lonely stretch of West Temple Street and one of the gunmen left behind a hat with a .45 bullet hole in it and a label from a store in Chicago.
It was all leading to the nightmare scenario, the arrival of Al Capone. Word spread quickly that the nation’s most feared hoodlum had slipped into L.A. under an alias and checked into the Biltmore, the ornate new hotel with an aquamarine tile swimming pool in the basement. Detective Ed “Roughhouse” Brown led a delegation of cops over there to ceremoniously escort Capone and his bodyguards onto the ﬁrst train back to Chicago. Just twenty-eight, yet rumored to be worth $2 million from the beer and booze trade, Capone took the bum’s rush in good humor, noting that his crew had at least gotten to tour a film studio. “I came here with my boyfriends to see a little of the country,” he quipped. “Why should everybody in this town pick on me? . . . we are tourists and I thought you folks liked tourists. Whoever heard of anyone being run out of Los Angeles that had money?” But the city evidently was a dangerous place, even for a Capone—someone stole his jug of wine en route to the train station. “Now I won’t have a drink,” he said, “between here and home.”
So L.A. had an early glimpse of a hoodlum who turned everything into a goof—there would be another to come. The city also had a second celebrity cop guarding its borders. First “Lefty” James and now “Roughhouse” Brown. What a glorious headline Roughhouse earned. Glorious! Glorious!
“Scarface Al”—Came to Play Now Look—He’s Gone Away!
By then the Whalens had settled in a small apartment above a dry goods store they opened with the last of Fred’s earnings from the trip out. They’d come in through the desert along the Old Santa Fe Trail, ﬁxing the inevitable flat tires on the Dorris during the day and camping nights in tents as coyotes howled outside. There were few other Marmon Touring Cars on the roadway soon to be anointed Route 66, but it was crammed throughout 1922 with fellow Midwesterners in their Model Ts and jalopies, on their way to swelling Los Angeles’ population past San Francisco’s, making it the largest city in California. One hundred thousand people a year were migrating to the area, primarily from the heartland states and no longer drawn west by the last century’s fantasy of riches from gold. Though some were entranced by the fantasy that replaced it—of fame in the movies—for most it was enough to dream of a fresh start in “the city where there is everlasting sunshine,” in the words of Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., not to mention the free lunches that real estate developers served up to anyone visiting their new housing tracts. With no less than 631 subdivisions in the works the year the Whalens arrived, one builder was preparing to erect an enormous sign in the hills touting Hollywoodland, his housing tract below. Another adorned his lots with images of houses-to-come on false fronts supported by wooden braces, the real estate version of Hollywood sets. Another offered a free rooster for your backyard—you could still feel like a farmer, just like back in Iowa. A fellow Midwesterner-émigré to L.A. meanwhile was redefining the cemetery as a memorial park with none of those morbid monuments sticking up, just stones laid ﬂat along peaceful sweeping lawns, so the bereaved might ﬁnd hope and solace. Missouri native Herbert L. Eaton vowed that his Forest Lawn would be “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.” In Los Angeles, the cemetery would become “God’s Garden.”
The Whalens set up shop a mile west of downtown, well beyond its commercial clutter and the intersection already touted as the busiest for traffic in the nation, though development was edging their way. The castle-like Ambassador Hotel had just gone up on Wilshire Boulevard, with 500 guest rooms and a nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove, where dancers waltzed “under the spell of the (artificial) palms.” But Wilshire remained unpaved in the other direction, away from the city, passing dairy farms and fields of lima beans as it headed toward the ocean. The Whalens also were within walking distance of Westlake Park, a favorite setting for the colorized postcards that were all the rage, with pastel-enhanced scenes of gents and ladies strolling in their Sunday finery by cypress and palm trees to a boathouse by the lake, an American-flag topped gazebo looking down on young couples paddling their canoes. You’d find such idealized images for sale next to the Whalens’ cash register, amid all the merchandise they stole.
Fred and Lillian were arrested after Christmas, 1924, charged with swiping three sweaters from another store across town. With Fred waiting in the getaway car, Lillian had reprised her Jesse James heritage by carrying off the sweaters while a clerk was helping other customers. Then Los Angeles police put more of the Whalens’ merchandise on display at the Central Station—stockings, dresses, women’s silk unmentionables—and merchants from around the city came by to examine the items and announced, “That’s mine!” or “That’s ours!” By the time of the Whalens’ trial, prosecutors had a dozen witnesses to their far-flung petty larceny.
When Fred had his turn on the witness stand he flashed his salesman’s smile and swore all the bras and nighties were gifts, given to them at a “birthday shower.” But jurors took all of twenty minutes to ﬁnd the couple guilty. Lillian fainted when the verdict was announced and Fred had to endure a night in jail, plus the indignity of the local newspaper calling him a “self-professed champion billiard player.”
It was an unpleasant start to life in L.A., but at least no one pegged them as outsiders. In a city of refugees and wannabes, being ma-and-pa shopkeepers with two toddlers was enough to qualify the Whalens as bona fide Angelenos. There even was an upside to having the idiots doubt Fred’s ability with a cue.
He preferred straight pool, where you had to sink 125 balls, the no-nonsense tournament test. But the money still was at bars and parlors where the rubes liked quicker games such as Eight-Ball. A player of Fred’s caliber often could sink all the solids or stripes in one turn, but he’d never earn a buck if he did—even drunk, most pea-brains would take their money off the table after seeing how easily he ran out the rack. What he’d do instead, then, is barely miss his opening shots, lagging his balls—whether the stripes or solids—to the edge of the pockets. More importantly, he’d leave the white cue ball in a spot that gave the other guy no good shot, no opening at all. After the fellow’s futile turn, all Fred had to do was knock in his balls sitting on the edge of the pockets, duck shots anyone could execute. The other guys thought he was lucky, that’s it. They might start out playing for quarters, but a frustrated loser soon could be betting dollars, or more, to get even.
That was Fred Whalen’s MO as he made the rounds of upscale pool parlors favored by the beneficiaries of the area’s two booming industries. The oil people had cash in their pockets from the newly gushing Signal Hill field down by Long Beach, where one well alone spewed 1,000 gallons a day. The Hollywood folks were flush too, by 1927 spending $100 million a year making movies.
But Fred didn’t ignore the lowlier neighborhoods where pool was a staple of life, and a test of manhood. One such community was Boyle Heights, a slum on the east side of the Los Angeles River made undesirable by its proximity to factories and the rail yards. That neighborhood got groups proper L.A. didn’t want—or banned by real estate covenants—the Mexicans, Italians, and especially poor Russian Jews, often ones who had sampled New York first and now were refugees a second time. Boyle Heights was a classic survival-of-the-fittest slum, typiﬁed by the action each night at Art Weiner’s pool hall. It attracted guys with names like Matzie and Dago Frank who could roll any number they wanted with the right pair of dice and fancied themselves primo pool hustlers too. The tough local kids competed for their favor, including a pint-sized newsboy, proper name Meyer Harris Cohen, whose mother Fanny, an immigrant from Kiev, had brought her six children west after the death of her husband Max. They helped in the small grocery she opened, stacking cans, though her youngest preferred the streets or the pool hall, where he often racked balls and kept score for the local hustlers Matzie and Dago Frank. “Gimme the chalk!” they’d say and he’d do it, the little kid they called Mickey for short. But there’s no way of knowing if young Mickey Cohen ever saw Fred Whalen wander in to play his idols for fools, or whether their eyes locked across one of the green felt tables at Art Weiner’s pool hall, as they would in a Los Angeles courtroom, decades later.
Sometimes Fred wanted to show off—he got tired of holding back—so the family would road trip out of L.A. to smaller communities reminiscent of the ones they’d victimized on their cross-country trip. Lillian sewed him a bright blue satin costume with a Russian Cossack–style top and a mask and they would post flyers advertising an exhibition by “The Masked Marvel.” Fred performed the tricks he’d learned as a kid, including hitting balls off Coke bottles, plus new ones using pairs of cue sticks as ramps—the cue ball went up one ramp and down another, then knocked three or four balls into pockets. Or he’d hide balls under a handkerchief and sink them, or make them disappear. There was an exhilarating honesty to the shows, and not only because his skill was unleashed. It was one time he could announce who he was. “I’m going to cheat you,” he could say, “but even after I tell you, you still can’t see me cheat you.” Then he’d make the red ball vanish, steal it right from under their eyes.
Understand, he hadn’t given up on cons like the chauffeur bit, not at all. He loved that sting, loved it. In fact he’d do it again, just not with Gus putting on the cap to play a fake chauffeur in the St. Louis version of a rich man’s car. Fred Whalen soon would be able to afford a genuine chauffeur, and a genuine Stearns-Knight Touring Car, and how he got those had nothing to do with pool.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Lieberman
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Paul Lieberman spent 24 years as a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times and before that was projects editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has won dozens of journalism honors, including the Robert F. Kennedy Awards Grand Prize, a George Polk Award, Gerald Loeb Award, and American Society of Newspaper Editors Award. He also shared in two team Pulitzer Prizes at the L.A. Times, as a writer on its coverage of the Los Angeles Riots and an editor of its reporting on the Northridge Earthquake. A native New Yorker, Lieberman is a graduate of Williams College and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied law and social history. He lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with his wife, Heidi, a school administrator.